Griffin’s quotation (on the 26th of last month) from Thomas Merton’s autobiography caught many of our eyes: “There are a lot of people . . . [who] do no little harm by virtue of their sheer, stupid inertia, lost in between all camps, in the no-man’s land of their own confusion.”
I’d like to speak in defense of thoughtless inertia. I realize that’s an unpopular opinion on this blog, a blog built on the overabundance of thoughtfulness God has gifted us with. Moreover any opinion is a thought, first off, so this opinion of mine is obviously ironic but also the source of my credibility.
You see, I am actually incapable of inertia. Getting out of bed in the morning is, for me, part existential crisis, part guilt-trip, and part essay-to-be. Sometimes I journal about my decision to eat or not to eat breakfast. I am Hamlet.
My four years at Calvin were the most stable of my “adulthood” (assuming I fit in that category). After Calvin I bounced from country to country, teaching to graduate school, summer trip to winter trip, and now wondering: what is a good next step? What is an intentional, discerning next step that will allow me to work on my writing, but also contribute to society, but also challenge me intellectually by introducing me to new minds and interesting ideas? In two years no doubt I’ll be at it again, figuring out the next step.
And every moment: thinking. Ponderous thinking.
Can I eat this if I’m an ethical person? Buy this if I care about developing countries? Is this job feeding my creativity? Is this friendship unhealthy? Should I fix the problems or bail? What’s the line between committed and clingy? Is “stagnant” the right word or do I really mean “lethargic”? What would be so wrong about lighting out west right about now?
I would argue these wonderings we keep inside ourselves are a more nefarious breed of stupidity, though possibly less stupid than sheer inertia. Thoughtfulness is the stupidity of the Pharisees, smart men who were terribly intentional, but who, when faced with the kinds of choices at which children excel, picked wrong every time. Thoughtfulness is for politicians. For the yuppies that many of us are.
It’s not that I don’t recommend thoughtfulness. Acting without thought leads to injustice and, yes, to stagnation. As Griffin wrote, “Dead things can’t go upstream.”
But in the end it’s words words words, nothing but wild and whirling words in our heads, and we’re dead in ways we’ll never be able to fix by thinking more about it.
By all means we should dream and evaluate; we should consider the day and its meaning. But in ten years or thirty if Cassie is still making potato salad at what was supposed to be a summer job, chances are good that she’s met some amazing people, possibly picked up guitar, and impacted more people than folks like me who have yet to find the way out of their own heads.
So while I agree that sheer, stupid inertia is an insidious thing, I add that thoughtfulness can be a tangle of inactivity and privilege. Dirt is a better option for us all. Dirt and dirt work.
As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in An Altar in the World, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.”
There is a place for thought and thoughtfulness, but that place is after action and in the midst of action. Arguably that place is on our deathbed after a life spent making potato salad. Especially those of us who are hard-wired for introspection: our task is to act in faith and to rest in the awareness that all of life is sacred—whether we did it well or not.
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).